Innovation through Collaboration
On Thursday I had the good fortune to be invited to the first in a series of coffee-industry focused talks hosted by Swiss Water Process.
I felt like a bit of an jerk being on my phone the whole time, but I took detailed notes from all four speakers, and I'd like to share their contributions with you. These are heavily edited notes, I'm not a journalist nor a writer, don't expect Shakespearean prose. I don't know how interesting this is gonna be to folks, I don't know how great my notes actually are ... but I thought it was fascinating; so ... lets find out.
SWP introduced the evening, explaining that they were looking at moving into more community development and resourcing, and how they were really excited by their unique place in Vancouver coffee culture - they are not competing with anyone, but instead a neutral middle party to all of us. They want to take advantage of this to build neutral spaces and more community within Vancouver coffee. This evening was the first foray into that.
First up was WBC 2015 Champ Sasa Sestic, talking about "Think Outside of Coffee" and the value of interdisciplinary collaborations.
Mr Sestic started off talking about how he got into coffee and into the world of specialty and competitive coffee, in large part inspired by Mr. Sammy Piccolo and his showings, while solely wanting to qualify for finals. Now ... He won world finals, and Sammy Piccolo is sitting in the audience at his talk. Not self-puffery, but wanting to make a point about the strange interconnection of our industry.
He talked about his company, Ona Coffee, and how he grew it from him, his wife, and three staff members to an organization with 120 or so staff and multiple branches and locations. He was very proud that all three original staff still worked for Ona.
From there, on to the coffee itself! He explained his approach to coffee, green and brown, in that he sees 50% of the total potential of a coffee being decided at harvest, the green bean is the most impactful part of a good cup. Then, he thinks about 20% is roasting and another is preparation, with the remaining 10% accounting for hardware.
He talked about how The Orthodoxy of coffee is excellent as a guideline, but can be quite incorrect when applied like a rule - a farm he worked closely with in Honduras won CoE (no clue when, he changed slides before I got to there in my notes) had topped out at a 95-point win, off all of a first harvest, four-year-old trees, and slow erratic drying due to landscape - each individually being a factor that would lead coffee folks to expect "bad" coffee, not CoE-winning coffee.
From his work there, the farmer offered him 'a favour' in thanks for helping him win, and he ended up borrowing a corner of his crop for experimentation. He was fascinated by the fact that each lot or harvest from the farm was quite different, despite being same terroir, same ripeness, and same well-trained staff doing harvesting. So started looking for where the variance came from, largely based in the understanding that wine is similar in its various processes, but not similar in harvest-to-harvest variance.
In his original series of experiments, he did things like have harvesters separate cherries from top, mid, and bottom sections of the tree, then similarly with how close to the trunk the cherries were. Found proximity to trunk more impactful of the two - and far more peaberries out near the tips of branches.
And then bought the Finca Beti farm to continue the work and the experimentation, still trying to figure out consistency. He joked that he named the farm after his wife (Beti, or Betty? Never saw her name writ, just the farm name.) so that it'd be easier to break the news that they now owned a coffee farm in Honduras.
From that farm, though, has invested heavily into experimentation, with a special focus on processing methods. Climate control, humidity control, anarobic dry, anarobic wet, 'fermentation', true fermentation, as many different things as possible. Has a cool device that dips into a vat and provides readout for the solution present - PH, sugars, alcohols, gasses, temperature, water level ... uses this like the processing equivalent of Cropster.
He said he'd successfully invented a processing & varietal combination whose result tasted like salmon. He said this was not a good thing.
...And the collaboration. Back in Australia, he set out to try and pull as much learning from the wine world as possible. He partnered with a Mr. Tim Kirk, top man at Clonakilla, what is widely regarded as the top winery in Australia. Or at least, they win a lot of awards. Mr. Sestic worked closesly with him learning how they assess their harvests and their processes and how they turn those two things into both of consistency and quality.
One of the most useful things he learned was that Clonakilla, they do much of their harvest not by eye and feel as is traditional and typical in the industry, but via Brix testing (details not provided, I assume they do not test each grape before adding it to the bin) for sugar levels in the grapes. When Mr. Sestic went to apply this to coffee, he found that equivalently ripe-looking cherries can still have a very wide difference in sugar content - and this is further emphasized in the cases where varietals are not the same. He said that a Caturra harvested "at peak" visually will contain 20% sugar compared to a Castillo at the same colour holding 15% - but that further testing showed that the Castillo will stay on the tree *past* when was traditionally seen as optimal, and can rise as high as 25% sugars if allowed to do so. Most other varietals drop their cherries shortly after they reach ideal appearance.
The other large portion I touched on earlier, but Mr Sestic doubled back - the meticulous control over processing factors. Top wine has all processing of the grapes occur in climate controlled spaces - attempting the same with coffee showed that relatively minor changes in environment end up causing different microorganism activity in the tank. Alongside this, he said they found that the concrete vats often used for wet process retain microorganisms from use to use and this very directly impacts what you can or might get out of the coffees.
Lastly, closely related, he said that using the earlier gadget to track as much information about what each batch has been subjected to, alongside manipulate some of the parameters (adding more water or swapping off liquid in tank to reset solution PH), could create very consistent batches he hopes, and certainly apply far more control to what they're expecting and why. Said it's a long experimental cycle, and doesn't have any more concrete results yet, but again reiterated how much he learned in pairing with Tim Kirk of Clonakilla.
Brent Mills of Four Winds Brewing, a heavily celebrated and well-awarded brewery in Delta BC, talking about Experimentation driving Innovation.
Discussing the value of rigorous experimentation, and covered their current lineup to contextualize it within the framework of the experimentation they've done. He said that without experimenting heavily, they would've been unable to actually innovate predictably, and any success they say might've been largely good fortune rather than good planning.
He talked about 'sour' beers and beers that are intentionally soured through a bacterial introduction at some point in their fermentation, discussed how there's a few classic strains of yeast used - Lactobacillus and Pediococcus - but that they still required a lot of experimentation to get the result they were after, even starting from relatively 'known' points.
Wild beers are typically made with atypical yeasts and said that they're much more a matter of running the same wort a whole bunch of times but subtly changing either the yeast or the conditions on the yeast, because they're trying a wide range of possible combinations and getting close one way doesn't necessarily mean that's a good place to start and iterate out from.
Lastly, wood-aged beer - something the coffee industry has passing familiarity with - he said that how woods react with specific beers also needs experimentation. Similar to my own experiences blending coffees, he said the ways that given flavours may or may not combine isn't always predictable.
In the course of their experimentation, they have to have a very high tolerance for just throwing out unsuccessful batches - he said they have a lot of interesting beers they've made that the market will never experience or know about, because they failed somehow as either a whole product or living up to the goals set for the experiment. Mr. Mills did however say that outside of experimentation, in cases where they had a plan and a goal, there's fairly limited spoilage and what does happen is always the result of human error, not the volatility of complex biological processes (for example, their yeast doesn't just do something fucky one day).
Jason Yamasaki, Head Sommelier of Chambar (a very premium restaurant in Vancouver) & winner of BC's Best Sommelier, talking about Service as a Goal.
Started us off with a bit of a game and with a poem to highlight the similarities between wine and coffee, describing them as the AM and PM sides of the same coin - a once "essential" commodity product that has transitioned or is transitioning into a craft or connoisseurship luxury.
He went on to elaborate that coffee and wine service are one of the very few lines of 'service' work that still demand face-to-face interactions as a fundamental part of the exchange itself - even servers or waiters are often less of an interaction opportunity and more of a proxy human notepad. Where modern coffee or wine service the expertise and passion accompanying the exchange are a fundamental part of how consumers select both products and return business.
He moved into his "three rules" for giving great service while finding that fulfilling.
"Master *your* mundane" was his first rule, stressing that there is room for enjoyment and development and excellence in the most minute, mundane, or tedious task our role serves us - his personal example was polishing glasses. Treat each task as something you can develop, enjoy, and improve at.
"Keep it lean & clean" - he cited Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point" and its discussion of Broken Windows Theory as a starting point - rather than clean up after yourself and clean up your environment, never allow dirt and decay to get a foothold. By cleaning proactively and preventitively, the task never becomes difficult, simply a habitual part of your workflow.
"Why?" ... keep our eyes on the prize, heart on the goal, mindful of why we are where we are, doing what we do. We're the last step, the final step, in delivering excellence, enjoyment, and indulgence to our customers. When they're at his restaurant, when they're at our cafes - we don't know if this is "normal Tuesday" or their one expensive indulgence this month. Try and make it special and rewarding and validating for them all the same.
He elaborated across all three of those points a little that service can make or break even the greatest or worst of *products*. That in many cases the product alone is not the sole contributing factor to the consumers' enjoyment and the value added by the people who are proximal to that product can be as if not more impactful than how good the product itself was. Even if we're 'just' selling a bag of roasted coffee, we have the opportunity to make that momentary interaction special, validating, and memorable to our patrons.
Keighty (pronounced "Katie") Gallagher from Tight Club Athletics discussing "Community and Collaboration"
Started off competitive track and field, and got into it because she loved the sport and loved the activity, but eventually realized that her training environment had made it very difficult to enjoy fitness or training - it was something inspired by fear of consequences (not qualifying, getting unfit, poor health) rather than enjoyment of practice. She commented how much Mr Yamasaki's point about "enjoying the mundane" really resonated with her there.
When Ms. Gallagher left competitive sport, she similarly left fitness behind, until a few chance conversations had her start up a fitness group with & for her colleagues and coworkers at a local bar / art space (The Alibi Room, if it matters to ya.) She felt the community there was valuable in its own right, and the fitness thing was her way of giving back to a community she was part of.
Initially, her mission was just making fitness fun and approachable to some people she cared about and liked, but the community around Alibi Room and around her burgeoning fitness group was absolutely fundamental to the transition from "fitness pals" to "fitness business" - her initial goal of trying to make fitness fun had the side effect of making being in the group fun and the community they formed desirable in its own right.
This segued tidily into "unintended benefits" where (in our city at least) their fitness group was among the first to take group photos, to social media the shit outta their workouts ... initially it was just fooling around and trying to make it fun, but she found that it provided accountability (no one wanted to miss out on that week's photo), inclusion (everyone there was in the photo, no in-group bullshit), and validation (being tagged on facebook with photographic proof of working out that morning) to participants.
...And attention from outside. Local "West Coast Lifestyle" company Lululemon saw their social media activity, thought it was cool that they were having fun and being very public about their excercise and reached out for a collaboration, bringing Tight Club into the very public eye of doing an activewear line collaboration with a very large, successful, and popular company many times their size.
Building relationships with clients and amongst clients moved from something that just happened to something that was deliberately and intentionally core to how Tight Club identified and developed itself. The community that had sprung up around them had been absolutely instrumental in their success, and Ms. Gallagher decided that making and maintaining that was important in recognizing, validating, and paying forward that community committment. They now build opportunities for socialization into each session - things as simple as "starting" class ten minutes early so there's time for a bit of a chat and check in with each group.
...I followed up with Ms. Gallagher after her session, and she said that building community and inviting participants into their home (very literally at first, their first studio space was the living room to her flat) and figuratively (they have a studio now that is designed to mimic much of that, feeling like a welcoming homey space more than an athletic one) and their lives resulting in many of those clients feeling they had an emotional or personal stake in the well-being of the business, and that feeling of involvement and inclusion was a huge contributing factor in their growth.
So there y'all have the speeches.
For the evening's sampling, we got three decafs roasted by Elysian (whose roastery location is next door and downstairs to the space we were in) that I believe was custom-done for SWP or the event specifically. I didn't get shots of the labels, I'm sorry, but there was a Colombian (Oranges, nuts, molasses. Too bright and light for my liking), a Guatemalan (Honey, kitchen herbs, citrus, not bad.), and a Honduran (Dark cocoa and effervescent elderflower. I want to make light roasts like this one.)
I don't remember the caterer and didn't pay much attention to the food. Four Winds was pouring Nectarous (Get this one when it's released in March. Seriously.) and Operis (Pretty tasty, completely overshadowed by the previous. Wish I'd tried this first.); while Jason Yamasaki was pouring Clos des fous Cabernet Sauvignon Grillos Cantores, which was super lovely, little bit red berry fruit, black pepper, and something green and aromatic alongside.
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